NORTHERN IRELAND AND THE 'WHITE' DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH
IN SOUTH AFRICA DURING A PERIOD OF CHANGE
- A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
The report sets out the findings of a major comparative study of the role of the church in a divided society, during a time of uncertainty and change. The study centred on the 'white' Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa and the Irish Presbyterian Church (PCI) in Northern Ireland. The former is the largest church among the Afrikaner (Afrikaans-speaking) community in South Africa, while the latter is the biggest church among Ulster Protestants. The investigation examined the meaning church members attached to religion in terms of the functions they wanted their church to fulfil. In particular, the study looked at the views of ministers and members on the question of whether the church should involve itself in activities designed to bring together different sides in a divided community.
Furthermore, the study looked at the part each Church plays in helping to maintain a collective sense of identity within its own ethnic grouping. It also tried to assess the importance of this function in the context of a changing political situation which was creating uncertainty and a degree of fear among church members in each case. In this regard, an attempt was made to measure the level of political 'alienation' within each of the communities studied. Finally, the study looked at the role of the church among the unemployed and those in financial need.
Two different techniques were used to carry out the research; the postal survey and the semi-structured interview. In Northern Ireland, the postal survey covered a reasonably large random sample of both ministers and Clerks of Session (the latter being, in effect, the most influential lay member in a congregation's ruling body, the kirk session). In South Africa, research was confined to the Northern Transvaal region which has tended to be associated with right-wing political views among whites, although it also contains some relatively 'liberal' white areas. Again, a postal survey was carried out to ascertain the views of both clergy and senior lay figures (the latter holding the position of either Chief Elder or Chief Deacon on their congregation's ruling body, the church council).
In addition, three congregations in each territory were selected for more in-depth examination; in both cases, the congregations were chosen because they were felt to be representative of a particular demographic 'type' of congregation. In each territory, one urban middle-class, one urban working-class and one rural 'border' congregation was selected. The Northern Ireland congregations were Stormont, a middle-class congregation in East Belfast Seaview, a working-class congregation in North Belfast and Second Newtownhamilton, a rural congregation close to the border with the Republic in South Armagh. The Northern Transvaal congregations were Queenswood, a middle-class congregation in Pretoria; Wespoort, a working-class congregation in Pretoria and Louis Trichardt, a rural congregation close to the border with the predominantly black 'homeland' (as it was then called) of Venda. Approximately fifty questionnaire-based interviews were carried out with a random sample of members in each congregation.
In general terms, the church seemed to have retained greater social significance among Afrikaners in Northern Transvaal than among Presbyterians in Northern Ireland. Although the level of regular attendance, as reported by ministers, tended to be slightly higher in Northern Ireland, the percentage of non-attenders also tended to be somewhat greater.
There was concern within the PCI about a decline in numbers in many churches in Belfast. The fieldwork evidence suggested that both the PCI and the DRC faced a problem in appealing to working-class people. A perceived stress on formality was one of the factors that seemed to put people off in both Seaview and Wespoort. However, in Wespoort, there was evidence that some people 'shopped around' among different churches, in an attempt to find something that fulfilled their - needs. Despite the proximity of the pentecostal Metropolitan Tabernacle, this pattern was not replicated in Seaview. To some extent, this reflected the fact that the church is still seen as a more relevant institution in South African society than appears to be the case amongst the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. However, there was no evidence to back the hypothesis that people reach out to the church during times of uncertainty and change; it was not a reason which emerged very frequently in the fieldwork interviews and few ministers in either territory felt it had much bearing on why people attended church. What does seem to be true, however, is that people look to their church to fulfil certain functions during times of change; this study was able to throw some light on this question.
In both societies, riven by bitter divisions for so long, the media tends to stress the conciliatory role of the churches. Preliminary interviews with ministers in both territories left one with the image of ministers who were wary of 'taking the plunge' in this direction because they did not wish to upset their kirk session/church council and/or congregations. However, there was strong evidence from the postal survey data in both territories to suggest that ministers' own personal views are a major factor in determining whether or not a congregation gets involved in 'intergroup' activities. There was a greater degree of support for church involvement in such schemes among the DRC ministers than was found among the PCI clergy; just 41% of the latter felt that congregations should provide opportunities for church members to meet Catholics to help improve cross-community relations. Indeed, a higher proportion of interviewees in each of the three Northern Ireland fieldwork congregations supported this idea, despite the fact that Stormont was the only one of the three congregations to have attempted such projects.
In Northern Ireland, there appeared to be a fairly strong link between a 'conservative' approach to theology (ie. a tendency to interpret the Bible in a very literal fashion) and opposition to joint worship and cross-community activities among Presbyterians, particularly in the case of clergy. As the proportion of clergy with conservative evangelical views seems to be growing, this does not bode well for those who would like to see the PCI become more involved in improving understanding between Protestants and Catholics. In Northern Transvaal, the theologically 'conservative' ministers and lay respondents were less likely to support their Church's critical view of apartheid; this linkage was further reflected in negative attitudes towards interracial services and worship from 'conservative' elders and deacons. This pattern is not surprising when one remembers that, for many years, the DRC said that apartheid - or 'separate development' as its advocates prefer to call it - could be justified on theological grounds. There was no evidence, however, that this 'conservative' view was gaining ground.
There also appeared to be a link in both territories between the extent to which one perceived one's ethnic grouping to be 'under threat' and one's attitude towards church involvement in 'intergroup' activities; those who felt a 'sense of threat' were more likely to take a negative view of such schemes.
The study tried to ascertain the influence of the Orange Order on the activities of the PCI. There was no real evidence of any direct influence. However, a quarter of the PCI session clerks who took part in the postal survey belonged to the Orange Order. This may help explain why the session clerks, as a group, manifested a strong -belief that Protestants were under threat and why they were nearly all theologically 'conservative'. All but one of the Orange Order members belonged to rural congregations; while there was no evidence of concerted lobbying on the part of the Order, it would seem Orangemen still play a prominent role as individuals in the running of many rural congregations.
It can be argued that the Orange Order is part of an Ulster Protestant 'civil religion' in which potent symbols, religious or otherwise, serve to reinforce a feeling of social cohesion, collective identity and common purpose among an ethnic grouping. One can apply the same term to elements of the Afrikaner nationalist movement, particularly in its use of 'voortrekker' symbolism in the drive for political power before the Afrikaner-dominated National Party was elected in 1948. Both the PCI and the DRC still perform an important symbolic role in helping perpetuate the 'civil religions' of their respective communities.
A high proportion of ministers surveyed in both territories preached at services which helped promulgate either the Afrikaner or the Protestant 'civil religion'. It could be contended that, in doing this, ministers were enhancing the 'sacred' nature of each 'civil religion'. A further aspect of this role in the PCI in Northern Ireland related to the use of Presbyterian churches for Orange Order services; again, a high proportion were used for this purpose. This symbolic link between the Orange Order and the Presbyterian Church was more common in rural congregations, reflecting the fact that the Order appears to be more popular in rural than in urban areas. There was a similar contrast in Northern Transvaal, with ministers in rural areas more likely than those in urban areas to preach at the symbolically significant Day of the Vow services (the Day of the Vow commemorates a historic victory by a small number of white 'voortrekkers' against thousands of Zulus). Again, the Day of the Vow appeared to retain greater importance in rural areas; of the three DRC fieldwork congregations, the greatest proportion of interviewees who still regularly attended a Day of the Vow service or event was in Louis Trichardt.
It could also be argued that the church can play a role in promulgating a group's 'civil religion' by speaking out on its behalf; thus adding an element of 'sacredness' to the particular political position held by that group. The lengths to which such a role can be taken are demonstrated by the theological justification the DRC once gave to apartheid; a position which undoubtedly made it much easier for many members to go along with South Africa's devastatingly oppressive apartheid regime. The Church's official position is that this theological justification was deeply misguided. While once the DRC was known as the 'volkskerk' of the Afrikaner people, it now formally rejects such a role. One of the PCI's 'official' documents, published recently, has also warned of the dangers of being a 'spokesperson' for one community. Yet, the evidence from both the postal survey and fieldwork data suggested a strong demand among members for the PCI to take on such a role. The present PCI Moderator, Dr. David McGaughey, supports such a stance; he believes members are looking to the Church to speak on their behalf because politicians and the media have failed to do so.
There was some evidence of a demand among members of the DRC in Northern Transvaal for the Church to fulfil a similar function, but it was not as great as in Northern Ireland, perhaps because of the uncomfortable associations with the Church's advocacy of apartheid referred to above. In both territories, there was some evidence to suggest that those who felt their community was under threat were more likely to want the Church to play such a role. There was also a weak correlation between the extent to which fieldwork interviewees in each territory felt politically 'alienated' and their support for the 'volkskerk' concept; the more 'alienated' were somewhat more likely to favour this idea. Thus, Dr. McGaughey may have assessed the views of his membership correctly.
While many of those who supported such a role for the church also favoured church involvement in 'intergroup' activities, one must ask what implications fulfilling the 'volkskerk' role has for a church's efforts in trying to improve 'intergroup' relations. In Northern Ireland, the dramatic change in the political landscape following the recent IRA and loyalist ceasefires has its implications for the churches. Prior to the ceasefire, churches could concentrate their efforts, if they wished, on calling for peace and for the politicians to talk, without having to spell out any particular political position. That said there has always been a marked difference in emphasis between the Protestant and Catholic churches in Northern Ireland, with the two largest Protestant churches tending to voice support for the security forces and their 'law and order' role, while the Catholic Church has tended to concentrate more on perceived injustices perpetrated by the security forces. However, now that the violence in Northern Ireland has stopped and most politicians are willing to talk, it is not just the politicians who have to lay their cards on the table. Given the evidence above, it would seem inevitable that the PCI is going to come under increasing pressure from its members to voice their political concerns. While this may not be impossible to reconcile with a role in promoting better cross-community relations, it could send out confusing signals to Catholics.
Whether or not, the DRC and the PCI embrace the 'spokesperson' aspect of being a 'volkskerk', they are both fulfilling a 'volkskerk' role in another sense; to the extent that there is a strong body of opinion in both churches which is opposed to joint worship with blacks on the one hand, and joint worship with Catholics, on the other, both Churches are effectively laying down the 'boundary markers' that define who is 'in' and who is 'outside' their members' ethnic grouping. The very act of worship becomes a way of reinforcing your own sense of identity - of what you are and, more importantly, of what you are not.
The political 'vacuum' that Dr. McGaughey speaks of was evident in all three fieldwork congregations in Northern Ireland; in each, the level of 'alienation', in terms of a sense of political powerlessness, was slightly higher than in the corresponding Northern Transvaal congregation. This is rather surprising in view of the fact that the Afrikaners who were interviewed were facing the fairly certain and imminent prospect of a relatively swift move from white minority to black majority rule. However, while there was a tremendous amount of bitterness among many of the DRC interviewees, the Northern Ireland interviewees were notable for the positive pride many of them showed in their disdain for politicians - yet, by their own admission, they were still prepared to go out and vote for the very representatives they detested so much!
Each of the Northern Transvaal samples did manifest a slightly higher degree of both uncertainty and a 'sense of threat' which does fit with the attitudes one would expect given the enormous political change they were facing. In both territories, those who were uncertain about the future were more likely to feel their community was under threat; this accords with the hypothesis that people will manufacture generalised beliefs to help them cope with an uncertain and confused situation. This latter theory may also explain the prevalence in all six fieldwork congregations of the belief that Afrikaners/Protestants were being discriminated against in terms of jobs because of affirmative action policies in South Africa and fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland.
There was a correlation in both the aggregated fieldwork samples between one's degree of 'alienation' and one's theological stance; the theologically 'conservative' were more likely than their 'liberal' counterparts to feel alienated from the political system. This is perhaps not surprising, given that those who take the Bible very literally are probably more likely to feel the fate of the world lies in God's hands and that there is little mere mortals can do to influence it in any case. However, it is worrying, in the sense that it would seem a large proportion of Presbyterians in Northern Ireland are 'conservative' in their theological approach. If the link between 'alienation' and theological belief was repeated on a wider scale among Presbyterians, one wonders if the 'conservatives' would be more likely simply to opt out of any new political structures set up in Northern Ireland. If they did so, they would only continue the pattern already visible among Protestants of failing to participate in politics at any level, beyond voting when there is an election.
Although there have been calls from community workers in Protestant areas for churches to play a bigger role in helping the unemployed and those in financial need, there was little evidence of any such demand from those interviewed in the Northern Ireland fieldwork congregations. It was a role that had been taken on by two of the three DRC fieldwork congregations in South Africa; in the case of the urban working-class congregation, there seemed little doubt that the church's profile in the community was greatly enhanced by the work It was doing. It must be remembered, however, that state assistance for the unemployed in South Africa was much more limited than that available for the unemployed in Northern Ireland. While there was little evidence of any expectation among PCI members that the Church should involve itself in such work, it would seem an obvious way in which the PCI could attempt to address its concern over a decline in numbers in many inner-city congregations in Belfast.
At the same time, while the stereotype of the 'undeserving poor', which many attribute to the Protestant 'work ethic', was apparent among certain clergy and social workers in the DRC; it was not evident among ministers in the PCI. In both territories, it appeared that older people from manual backgrounds were the most likely to hold such views. Social class did appear to be an important factor and the evidence suggested that the unemployed in working-class areas were more likely to be stigmatised in their own communities than to be 'looked down on' by those from middle-class backgrounds. The fact that older people seemed to be more likely to adhere to the stereotype of the 'undeserving poor' might mean that it is a label that is starting to die out in both the Ulster Protestant and the Afrikaner communities.
Both Afrikaners and Ulster Protestants are seen as fiercely independent people who are too proud to ask for help and prefer to suffer in silence instead. There was a greater willingness among the DRC fieldwork interviewees than among the PCI interviewees to approach the church or a community organisation for help if one was in need of financial or material help. This is no doubt related to the fact that the DRC was, to some extent, fulfilling a role played by the state in Northern Ireland and that many people in Northern Ireland would feel there was no need to look further than the government's welfare system for aid. However, there was also evidence in Northern Ireland of the type of fierce and, in many ways, self-defeating pride referred to above. It may also be the case that, if the PCI was seen to be working in this field, people would be more prepared to approach the Church for help. Many interviewees were unaware that the PCI can, in fact, provide financial help in certain cases through a special fund which does not seem to be widely advertised.
It is obvious from this study that there are many strong parallels between Afrikaners and Ulster Presbyterians, and between the 'white' Dutch Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. The evidence from these findings strongly backs the contention of Wallis and Bruce, who say:
"Where identity is threatened in the course of major cultural transitions, religion may provide resources for negotiating such transitions or asserting a new claim to a sense of worth." (Wallis and Bruce, 1992: 18)While the DRC is keen to be seen publicly to be fully behind the 'new South Africa', in general its church services remain white Afrikaans speaking havens in which one can temporarily shut the door on black majority rule and racial integration. Similarly, Presbyterian services in Northern Ireland fulfil a similar function at a time when the union with Britain, which Protestants have held onto so steadfastly, is beginning to loosen. In neither case is there any intention to shut out the 'other' group; indeed, the DRC officially welcomes blacks into its churches while Catholics appear to be welcome to attend services in most Presbyterian churches as individuals. However, in both cases, there is a rationale for keeping the business of worship separate - language and cultural differences, on the one hand, and theological differences on the other.
Furthermore, the PCI is faced with a choice. It can continue to be conciliatory and increasingly bland in its 'official' statements on political events, as important political choices are made in the coming months, or it can speak up as the neglected unionist voice of the ordinary Presbyterian who is contemptuous of politicians and feels utterly powerless to influence events, even at the most local level. In this sense, the DRC is in a more comfortable position. Having repudiated its former support for apartheid, it is now moving with the times. Since the General Election last April, the right-wing Afrikaners calling for their own 'volkstaat' have looked increasingly anachronistic and it would seem both the National Party and the DRC can safely leave them behind.
In Northern Ireland, new actors have suddenly appeared on the unionist political stage and, at the time of writing this report, it is tempting to predict that the DUP is going to go the same way as the white right-wing in South Africa. It is highly significant, however, that the Orange Order appears to have swung in firmly behind the Ulster Unionist Party, with its 'cautiously positive' approach to current political developments and the prospect of a political settlement. In the DRC, senior figures unapologetically took the view that they had to lead their people into the 'new South Africa', despite the fact many members were suspicious and fearful of what lay ahead. The PCI's members are voicing similar fears; it is not surprising that they look to the Church to speak up on their behalf. Perhaps, however, they too are looking for leadership. If both the Orange Order and the Ulster Unionist Party remain 'on board' in the search for a political settlement, the Presbyterian Church would seem to have little choice but to climb on board too. If the split in the unionist camp remains, however, the Church will almost certainly be faced with the option of being seen to side with the UUP or being seen to side with the DUP; previously, the PCI has been able to avoid being seen as anything more than broadly 'unionist' in the tone of its statements on political matters.
If the PCI is seen as taking a DUP line, any role it might have as a 'conciliator' between the two communities is likely to be viewed as redundant by many Catholics. However, if it aligns itself with the UUP, it might well be possible to offer firm leadership and act as a 'spokesperson'; giving vent to its members' fears while preparing them to accept change. This latter scenario would provide a much more favourable atmosphere for any cross-community activities local churches wished to take part in.
In the case of both the DRC and the PCI, however, it is evident many ministers have serious reservations about church involvement in 'intergroup' efforts, and that those clergymen are unlikely to encourage such schemes in their congregations. At the same time, in both churches, the act of worship still helps reinforce a sense of identity, and the proportion of PCI clergy in Northern Ireland which is opposed to joint worship with Catholics appears to be on the increase. Rather than try to force churches into schemes which, for many members and ministers, feel uncomfortably artificial, it might well be more realistic for those who wish to promote cross-community and interracial understanding to start elsewhere. The fieldwork evidence suggests that greater integration in the workplace may help promote a more 'open' attitude to the 'other' group. It would seem logical that greater integration in schools - in both Northern Ireland and South Africa - would also do much to break down barriers. In other words, despite the biblical phrase 'love thy neighbour', it is perhaps asking too much of a church at a time of change to do more than help its own constituency to negotiate that change; the most effective way to do that is probably by providing members with a sense of worth and a sense of identity.
For the Northern Ireland Office:
1/ That a review of the government's community relations strategy vis-á-vis the churches be carried out in the light of the conclusion that it may be unrealistic to expect the Presbyterian Church to play a major part in community relations efforts.
2/ That the government take further measures to encourage greater integration between Protestants and Catholics in the workplace and in schools and colleges.
3/ That more education be provided in schools and on adult education courses on the political process and ways of participating in it.
For the PCI:
1/ That the Church nominate one leading clergyman to act as a spokesperson to comment publicly more regularly than the Church has done hitherto on political matters. It would be important that the person chosen should be acceptable to the different theological and political 'wings' of the Church, and that he or she should be prepared to take on the task for a number of years.
2/ That the Church try to help its members feel less alienated
from the political process by encouraging them to participate
in it through:
3/ That the Church increase its involvement in schemes designed to help the unemployed and those in financial need, particularly in working-class areas.
4/ That the Church encourage ministers to challenge prejudice
towards and ignorance of Catholics among members of their own
congregations. For those ministers who are unwilling to become
involved in cross-community schemes, this may be a more acceptable
alternative. It also avoids the potential pitfall of running cross-community
programmes which are attended only by those who already have a
positive attitude towards Catholics.
For Further Research:
1/ That studies of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland
(in Northern Ireland) be carried out to ascertain:
2/ That the above study on the Presbyterian Church and any similar research on the other major churches in Northern Ireland should be repeated at regular intervals.
3/ That a comprehensive investigation be carried out into the nature, extent and factors behind 'alienation' in both the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.
Wallis, Roy and Steve Bruce 'Secularization: The Orthodox Model'
in Steve Bruce (ed.) RELIGION AND MODERNIZATION: SOCIOLOGISTS
AND HISTORIANS DEBATE THE SECULARIZATION THESIS 1992. Oxford: Clarendon